The digital scholar
The digital scholar

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2  MOOCs

A photograph of Stephen Downes.
Figure 7 Stephen Downes

The book The Digital Scholar was written before the advent of massive open online courses (MOOCs). MOOCs are a good example of the way in which teaching can be influenced by the possibility of digital scholarship, and also how that can be seen as both a positive and negative development.

There was a coalescence of interest in running open courses from a number of people, including David Wiley and Alec Couros, associated with the open education movement in around 2007. The title of first MOOC, however, is often given to Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08), run by George Siemens and Stephen Downes, in 2008. It was commentary on this course that gave rise to the term MOOC, jointly attributed to Dave Cormier and Bryan Alexander.

What characterised these early MOOCs was an interest in the possibilities that being both open and ­networked offered. The subject matter of these early courses was related to the mode of presentation, so courses were in topics such as open education, digital identity or networked pedagogy. As with early elearning courses, which would often be about the subject of elearning itself, these early stages of experimentation focused on subjects where the medium was the message. As with elearning, this soon broadened out to encompass a much wider range of topics.

Another characteristic of these early MOOCs was that they were associated with individuals, not institutions. They were seen as George and Stephen’s course, rather than a Stanford or Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) course. This meant that they were experimental in terms of technology, both by necessity and design. These MOOCs used a combination of open technologies, such as WordPress and Twitter. Learning to use these tools and to make connections across the open internet was seen as a key aim for these early MOOCs.

In 2011, MOOCs took a very different turn when Sebastian Thrun launched the Stanford Artificial Intelligence course, with over 120,000 enrolled learners. This attracted much attention from the media and venture capitalists. With the cost of formal education soaring, the idea that you could take courses from the top universities for free seemed irresistible. Harvard and MIT created EdX, Coursera was launched by Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng (with venture capital funding) and Thrun founded Udacity. The year 2012 was deemed ‘Year of the MOOC’ by the New York Times (Pappano, 2012) as most major US universities signed agreements with the MOOC providers to offer courses on their platforms or launched platforms of their own. MOOC mania was not restricted to North America: in the United Kingdom, The Open University launched FutureLearn in 2013; in Germany it was ­iVersity; and in Australia, Open2Study. Coursera is the most prominent of the MOOC providers, and it has over 500 courses from 107 universities and over 5 million learners enrolled (Protalinski, 2013). The pace of uptake, hype and development seemed breathless in comparison with most educational projects.

These new MOOCs were very different from the early ones pioneered by the open education movement. They tended to be institutional, based on a proprietary platform and driven by a strongly instructivist pedagogy. Whereas the initial MOOCs had emphasised the importance of networking, many new MOOCs were focused on video instruction and automatic assessment. The distinction was made between cMOOCs for the early, connectivist type MOOCs and xMOOCs for the new, didactic models (Siemens, 2012).

Since then there has been much debate about the financial sustainability of MOOCs, whether they can support all learners, the damage of the hype to education, and so on. This has led to something of a backlash against MOOCs.

In this video one of the founders of MOOCs, George Siemens, provides an overview of how MOOCs evolve the role of teachers:

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